Deep inside the Library of Congress, two dedicated GIS professionals toil away in almost complete obscurity. Few know what they do or where to find them. Housed in the basement of the library, Ginny Mason and Jacob Zonn direct and operate the Congressional Cartography Program (CCP).

From the Library of Congress to local governments, GIS mapping is becoming a valuable tool for forming and implementing public policy. GIS presents decision-makers with a perspective that was impossible in the past.

So what exactly does CCP do? Who uses it and why? Are federal lawmakers really ready to factor GIS technology into their decision-making? The answers to those questions require an in-depth look at a program many don't know exists, including those it's designed to assist.

Two's Company

For years, the Library's Geography and Map Division had an informal process of delivering on occasional, scattered requests for GIS services.

"The Geography and Map Division has basically been giving GIS services on an ad hoc basis for five to 10 years," said Zonn. "Not too many requests had been coming in ... I'm talking one request every six months."

In 2003 -- with GIS commonplace -- library officials recognized an emerging need for GIS maps. CCP was created to be the exclusive GIS mapping source for Congress and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the research arm of Congress. As experienced GIS analysts, Zonn and Mason were hired to create something from virtually nothing.

"Ginny and I basically built this program from the ground up," Zonn said. "We arrived here with two copies of [ESRI's] ArcView and a 60-inch plotter, and no real vision or mission to get going on, so we've created all that ourselves."

While building CCP, Zonn and Mason developed a coherent mission. Essentially they create high-quality GIS cartographic products for members of Congress and CRS. But built into that mission was a challenge. Would Congress members want to use CCP, or even understand what they could accomplish with it?

So far, Zonn and Mason produced more than 150 GIS maps for various members of Congress and their staff. The two hope that by producing quality work and detailing how GIS can aid legislators, their small program can expand into a convenient analysis and support resource with a larger staff.

CCP has no marketing budget, so virtually every client is the result of word-of-mouth advertising. CCP reportedly has a few returning customers who rave about the maps.

"[The response] is extremely positive," said Mason. "With some repeat customers, we're starting to see them thinking about things slightly differently than they did when they first approached us with requests. It's definitely been positive feedback, and they're very supportive of expanding our program."

Does It Matter?

The fact that the Library of Congress maintains this cartographic program is important to the GIS community, but why should Congress care?

Mason explained what she thought CCP's more philosophical purpose is.

"We want people to think in a geographical and spatial manner instead of just calling up and asking for a map of a location," she said. "What does that actually mean to our customer? We try to get them to really think in a geographical kind of way."

While that seems like a good way to approach their mission, when asked, both Zonn and Mason seemed to have difficulty describing what exactly they produce. Mason clarified that CCP typically produces two kinds of maps -- those relating to legislative issues and those relating to a member's constituency or district.

But Mason said what their maps look like depends on the request, and that they've created maps at the block level up to a global level.

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.